Thick Enough to Tear a BISCUIT

A thin layer of foggy mist drifts through the Southern pines early on a Saturday morning. As you meander down the graveled road, a patch of sugarcane creeps into view. Along with the cane patch, the sound of the rhythmic thrumming and sputtering of steam engines mixes with the twangs of country music, creating a melodic chorus of blissful Southern charm.

As you get closer to the farm, you’re greeted by Beauregard, an old, red farm dog. A flock of guineafowl, more commonly known as guinea, emit sharp, screeching squawks. The owner says the flock is a more effective security alarm than the dog.

Toward the back of the farm, in a proud, red barn, a crowd gathers. Faces young and old congregate around steaming kettles of boiling cane syrup and Brunswick stew. A thick blanket of dry hay covers the dirt floor of the cozy, inviting space. After polishing off your third bowl of stew—along with sampling the buffet of country delicacies—you may have to fight the urge to curl up next to Beauregard in the hay.

What started as a hobby for Hilliard farmer Tommy Clayton, the owner and operator of Southern Cross Farm & Sugar Mill, has turned into an annual celebration of bygone traditions for friends and family from throughout Northeast Florida and Southern Georgia. Those lucky enough to know of it just call it a cane grinding.

On Nov. 18, the crowd gathered on the Clayton farm to take part in the yearly sugarcane grinding, watching as the tall cane plants were slowly transformed into dark, tartly sweet and much sought-after elixir, cane syrup. Clayton’s fascination with the art of making syrup started when he was 16, under the guidance of longtime friend and fellow syrup-maker Owen Wingate.

Sugarcane has been a staple crop of the South for hundreds of years, since around the mid-1600s, during the time of Spanish and British settlers. For the Clayton family, it’s a tradition that runs deep. “I think probably about the early 1900s, the family in Statenville, Georgia was making it … . One side of the family made it there, the other side made it in Lawtey,” said Clayton, in the warm, Southern drawl one imagines would be quite comforting to the patients he treats in his career as a nurse. “It was a money crop. Because back then [1910-1920], most everybody grew their own food, but around here, they grew sugarcane and sweet potatoes for sellin’.” This even extended to some of Florida’s prisons, he added, pointing out an antique cane syrup kettle that once belonged to Florida State Prison in Raiford.

Unlike crops such as cucumbers and tomatoes, which are planted in the spring and harvested throughout the summer, sugarcane takes a bit more patience. The process lasts nearly eight months, from start to finish. The cane is planted in early winter, but won’t actually begin growing until spring, unless there’s an unusually warm spell, but a hard freeze usually knocks down any early sprouts.

Once the growing begins, it takes almost a whole year for the crop to reach full maturity in the fall, typically as November rolls around. Once it’s ready, the sugarcane is stripped of its leaves, topped (like cutting the leaves off a carrot) and cut down close to the ground.

At this point, the cane can be processed, but Clayton says the best syrup usually comes from sugarcane that has had a week or so to just sit, undisturbed.

After its sitting spell, the harvested cane is gathered and passed through a specially designed cane mill that presses juice out. The leftover vegetation, called pumice (or “pummies,” as they say on the farm), is fed to the livestock. Finally, the juice that is extracted from the cane is filtered and then boiled down into syrup or made into sugar. This process is the main attraction that draws people to the Clayton farm every year.

The off-white cane juice is boiled for several hours under a constant, watchful eye. This requires a crew of at least three people, constantly skimming impurities from the top and wiping down the rim of the kettle. Once most impurities have boiled out, the long and tedious process of making syrup begins. Just like the pummies, the skimmings aren’t wasted either, often added to the scraps for the pigs, who love the stuff so much Clayton says this is where the term “hog-wild” comes from.

As the kettleful of boiling juice cooks, the wide mouth precipitates a large amount of water to leave the mixture in the form of steam, causing the syrup to get thicker and darker, almost like an amber-colored lacquer.

At these final laps, the crowd begins to gather, silently debating who’s going to get the first taste. As the syrup boils and foams, climbing up the rim of the kettle, a light yellowish-brown candy forms—in this region, it’s called “Polecat,” named for the off-white, yellow tinge that sometimes stains skunks’ fur.

With a trained hand, one of the kettle workers slices off a sliver of raw cane—almost like a sweet, fibrous popsicle stick—and uses it to scrape the candy off the rim of the kettle for spectators to enjoy. Kids push to the front of the crowd, bumping elbows for the next sample.

Once the syrup has reached the desired thickness, it’s time to cut the fire and pull the syrup. Using a giant ladle the size of a broomstick with half of a metal bucket attached to one end, the syrup is spooned into a bottle-filler and dispensed into clean, empty bottles.

Clayton says they pull some out of the pot a little early when it’s thinner—comparable in thickness to Mrs. Butterworth’s—for the “city folk.” The syrup that’s left to thicken further is reserved for the “old-timers.” The latter is a little denser and more concentrated than what most people are used to when it comes to syrup. When it’s done right, “it should be thick enough to tear a biscuit,” said Clayton. “If you can make your own butter and make your own syrup, well, I think you’re just about set.” For many Southerners, a hot, steamy biscuit with butter and cane syrup is just about as good as it gets.

The idea of turning the process of making sugarcane syrup into a communal effort didn’t start with Clayton. Back in the old days, a lot of farms were capable of growing cane, but processing it was another story.

“Most people didn’t actually have a cane mill and kettle, they grew a lot of cane and then the bigger farms would have a mill and kettle … . Folks would bring theirs to them and they would do it on what we call a ‘toll,’” said Clayton. “For example, if we’re grinding corn for meal or grits, then we’ll do it on a toll, if someone had corn they wanted me to grind for them; it was the same way with sugar cane. I’ll take a percent of it and that’s the toll for it.”

This communal sugarcane tradition didn’t last forever. Clayton theorizes that the decline in homegrown sugarcane operations started around the 1930s, when shopping at stores stocking mass-produced syrups and sugars started becoming a more popular way of getting food than growing it. Clayton says that as time went on, the long, labor-intensive method of growing and processing sugarcane became less enticing.

As a small farm operation, if Clayton wanted to make any kind of profit from the syrup he now sells at five dollars a bottle, he would have to cut it and supplement it with corn syrup, a trick some use to stretch out a batch. However, this isn’t the main purpose of what he does.

“What’s funny is, a friend of mine, he’s passed away now—I always had older buddies, I didn’t hang out with anybody my age because I liked steam engines and stuff like this—he came out the first year I did it and he said, ‘You know what? This would be an ideal place out here to put on a show and to show people the old ways and what you’ve learned from your grandpa,’” said Clayton. “And that’s how it started. So the next year we invited out a bunch of people and I think we’ve probably had as many as 300 to 350 people out.”

By “old ways,” Clayton doesn’t mean just sugarcane. During the event, you can also shop from homemade wares local vendors are pitching. If you’re hungry, you can sample some local barbecue, one of the more universal means of connecting strangers in the South. A point of pride for Clayton, some of the aforementioned barbecue had been smoked in his own custom-made smokehouse—a couple pork butts, for almost two days.

Second only to the cane syrup is the Brunswick stew. The Southern dish with hotly debated origins in either Brunswick County, Virginia, or Brunswick, Georgia, dates back to the early 19th century. Cooked in an old wrought-iron kettle over an open flame, the stew is a mixture of veggies and meats—pork is preferred around these parts. It’s only two dollars for a healthy portion, conveniently served in large styrofoam cups for those who like to drink their stew, and all of the proceeds go to the local youth group at Ephesus Baptist Church.

While enjoying the stew, it is customary to listen to live country music—a group of white-bearded gentlemen entertained the crowd this year—and check out various steam engines in an almost car show-like affair, complete with steam whistles and smokestack billows. In fact, Clayton’s farm is practically a museum for turn-of-the-20th-century equipment. Just a fraction of his collection includes steam engines, cane mills, stump-pullers, peanut-pickers, wood-splitters and an old-school John Deere tractor customized for cutting lumber. The oldest of the cane mills dates back to the 1850s and another—one of the crown jewels—is almost the size of a Volkswagen Beetle; he prides himself on keeping it in mostly working condition.

At the Clayton cane grinding, you may see local blacksmith and farrier Billy Davis mold red-hot metals into horseshoes and intricate designs—even taking suggestions from the crowd. If you’re feeling brave, the spring-fed pond in the back not only plays home to catfish and bream of all shapes and sizes, but also to an almost-eight-foot-long gator named “Ally.”

The event is just as much a celebration of the community as it is a means to get your yearly cane syrup fix. “You get friends involved and it brings the community together. Mr. Billy shows off his skills and our guys that bring out the steam engines, they show off. Not show off, but they get to actually show people. And our steam engines that we run. Heck, alotta times, kids’ll blow that steam whistle three or four hundred times that day,” said Clayton. “And that’s what it’s about. Trying to let people see things they don’t see probably but once a year.”

Even though the art of sugarcane farming may be relatively unknown to some, Clayton is part of small, thriving community. “It’s kind of a close thing. There are about maybe four or five of us in this area. Counting to Callahan and up into South Georgia and out west the little bit who do it,” said Clayton. “It seems like in rural areas, there’s always one or two people who do it.”

This close-knit group of Southern artisans is called the Southern Syrup-Makers Association. Stretching through Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas, the Syrup-Makers is dedicated to keeping some almost-bygone Southern traditions alive.

Being part of a small community also means that you learn to rely on one another, says Clayton. Maintaining the equipment can be a challenge; it’s convenient to have a group of people who know what you’re looking for when you need it. If someone is trying to find a part or piece of equipment for their machinery, Clayton says you either have to trade for it, if you can find it, or make it youself. For special cases, when a part or piece can’t be found or bartered for, Clayton says they sometimes have to recast and reforge the parts out of iron. He knows a guy for that, too.

With the popularity of Clayton’s own event and the annual events other farmers hold, Clayton says the tradition is slowly starting to have a bit of a resurgence. “It kinda came back about 10 years ago when people were getting older—maybe about a generation above mine—and they started missing it and thinking back,” he said. “Reminiscing on how it was and that’s kinda when it got started again. We’d been doing it for a while before then, but that’s when it kinda got a good kick.”

As far as keeping the traditions going, Clayton says he hopes to keep doing it as long as he can, to pass it down to the next generations. As the process requires at least six hands, Clayton has brought a few friends along on his 24-year path. This year’s syrup wingmen, Todd Nobles, David Baker and Neal Tarkington, worked their magic around the kettle like chefs in a backwoods kitchen. Nobles, one of Clayton’s oldest friends, has been by his side since the first cane grinding in the early ’90s.

Clayton’s children, Madison and Garret, are well-versed in the tradition—Garret was the stew-guy at the cane-grinding this year—but are also pursuing their own careers, both attending the University of Florida College of Pharmacy.

Clayton says that apart from the annual sugarcane harvest, he, his wife Beth, who is also a nurse, and occasionally the kids, participate in artisan exhibitions. At these shows, they make small batches of syrup and sometimes candy.

Making the candy, which tastes a bit like a mix of caramel and taffy, is an interesting process on its own. As syrup is slowly boiled down, the sugar rises in temperature and thickens. This new concoction is then poured out and cooled slightly, but not completely. If pulled off the flame at the right time, the candy stays malleable. With buttered hands, the Claytons begin the work of stretching, pulling and folding the candy—almost like kneading dough. Once they have deemed the candy “done,” it’s a race to get a bite before it’s gone. A cane-grinding is the only place you can get this type of candy.

The rich history of farming sugarcane and making cane syrup comes with a rather interesting set of phrases—you could call it a cracker dictionary. In addition to “pummies” and “polecat,” there’s a wealth of words and phrases.

Take, for example, the “hominy flop.” Hominy flop refers to the stage in the boiling process when bubbles begin to roll over and enlarge. This characteristic is taken from the cooking stovetop grits, or hominy. Once grits start to do the same, they’re done.

Clayton explained that this verbiage varies by region. He says that what they call the hominy flop here is called “froggin” out west—taken from the bubble a frog makes with its throat when it croaks.

Just like any storied pastime, the history of syrup-making is one of language, technique and heritage. For Clayton, it’s not about making money or garnering attention, it’s about preserving traditions and the communities that support those traditions. For many of the cane-grinding attendees, it’s a yearly pilgrimage to the Clayton farm. The oldtimers go to remember and the newer generations go to learn. Everyone goes for the syrup and Brunswick stew. Many kids in the local communities have grown up going every year. Now some are returning with their own kids in tow. The Claytons have been at it since 1993—nearly a quarter-century—and they don’t show any signs of slowing down.

“Our families have done it back for years and years,” said Clayton. “It’s a lost art. So, we just want to keep it going.”

Learn more about Southern Cross Farm & Sugar Mill at